Ravens set to open 20th season in Denver with mix of high expectations, unanswered questions

The Ravens will begin their 20th season Sunday afternoon in Denver, the same unwelcoming place where they opened two years ago. They aren't the defending Super Bowl champions this time, but the 2015 Ravens bear plenty of similarities to that team.

Again they're coming off an inspiring playoff performance, one that saw them nearly topple the eventual Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. Again they're a popular choice to make the playoffs, with Sports Illustrated even picking them to win the Super Bowl. Again they're trying to replace departed stars — in this case Torrey Smith and Haloti Ngata.


But after a 1-3 preseason that pushed Coach John Harbaugh to uncharacteristic petulance during one halftime interview, the Ravens enter 2015 as an intriguing blend of high expectations and unanswered questions.

"A viable Super Bowl contender? I wouldn't put them No. 1 or No. 2," said CBS lead NFL analyst Phil Simms, who will call the Ravens-Broncos opener with Jim Nantz. "I think they're in a group of teams where we're going to see how it falls out."

With the Orioles well out of contention after an ugly late summer of baseball, Baltimore sports fans are more than ready to turn their attention and hopes to the Ravens. With the Ray Rice mess fading into memory and the Ravens marking a milestone year, many fans see the potential for another celebratory season.

There are enough questions to disconcert ardent fans, despite their overarching faith in a franchise that has been to the playoffs six of the past seven years.

"We've been spoiled over the last 20 years, we really have," said John Adkins, a self-described superfan who lives in Havlock, N.C., where his wife is stationed for the Air Force. "I guess we expect to win, and we really shouldn't assume it like we do."

Adkins, who goes by the nickname "Havok" and was recently named NFL Fan of the Year by the "What a Fan" website, plans to attend all eight Ravens home games, as well as road games in Pittsburgh and Miami. He'll be decked out for each in custom boots, hat, jersey and face paint.

"I'm kind of concerned about the returners, and wide receiver is always a question," Adkins said, noting that means the Ravens could post a 12-4 record instead of his hoped-for 14-2. "But we've just got to trust the system. [General manager] Ozzie Newsome has done it for the last 19 years."

Henri Butler of Rosedale figures the Ravens could improve by a game or two on last season's 10-6 record. But he's worried about the defensive backs, a weakness last season. Especially Week 1 in Denver against Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who threw an NFL record-tying seven touchdowns in a 49-27 drubbing of the Ravens in 2013.


"Going back [to Denver], that's a tough thing to look forward to ... " Butler said. "Really, if you can't guard the guy you know they're throwing to, you don't have much of a defense."

Don't bother asking the Ravens to comment on the Super Bowl hype from Sports Illustrated or the doubts from other corners. Quarterback Joe Flacco's take on such September predictions was typical:

"It's all a bunch of nothing," he said last week, as he prepared to start his eighth season opener. "It doesn't mean anything at this point."

Linebacker Terrell Suggs, looking ahead to his 13th season, deemed preseason hype "the kiss of death to us."

Simms offered high praise for Flacco, the Ravens offensive line and the defensive front seven that includes Suggs.

"Those are some really solid things to build around," he said. "What's the weakness? Well, the biggest is can they find ways to make big plays? In this league, you've got to make big plays."


That's where the loss of wide receiver Smith will hurt most, especially with the team's first-round pick, Breshad Perriman, still limited by a knee injury that cost him most of training camp.

Other areas of worry are running back, where the Ravens are thin behind Justin Forsett; kick returns, where they haven't named a starter; and the secondary, where cornerback Lardarius Webb missed the entire preseason because of a hamstring injury.

The Ravens won't be helped by a schedule that puts them on the road for five of their first seven games, including two pairs of back-to-back West Coast games.

Harbaugh began training camp in late July feeling bullish about his team's depth, with quality young players fighting for time at almost every position.

But he clearly grew annoyed with his reserves' inability to slow opposing offenses during the preseason. That led to his snippy interview with sideline reporter Brent Harris during an exhibition loss to the Washington Redskins.

Harbaugh acknowledged those frustrations last week, while saying he remains confident in his roster.

"I wasn't really pleased with the way we played as a unit out there a lot of times," he said. "Maybe the injuries are part of that. Maybe guys just weren't playing as well as they need to.

"All of those things factored in, but you move forward from here. I like our young guys. … I love the way they work"

Flacco said he believes in the talent around him, even if some of the resumes are shorter, the names less familiar.

"It's not about going out there and having a bunch of proven guys on your team that are all 38 years old," he said. "It's about getting guys that are young, explosive and you believe can play and going and proving it to everybody."

No matter what happens in the early games, Simms said, the Ravens can't be dismissed because they're built on a durable foundation. Namely, they're large and punishing on both the offensive and defensive lines, and they have a quarterback who has led them to many gut-churning playoff wins.

"They have a philosophy that hasn't changed, and it always gives them a chance," Simms said. "They're built to play pressure football."